x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Curry up and drive

Feature Abu Dhabi's delivery men navigate the city without maps or addresses and we tag along with one restaurant driver to find out how.

Basheer Alumgal dashes from Tandoori Corner restaurant to deliver a takeaway food order. He has lived in Abu Dhabi for 16 years and says it never takes more than 40 minutes to complete a delivery.
Basheer Alumgal dashes from Tandoori Corner restaurant to deliver a takeaway food order. He has lived in Abu Dhabi for 16 years and says it never takes more than 40 minutes to complete a delivery.

After a month living in the capital, I still need my trusty Abu Dhabi mini-map at all times lest I step from the office for lunch and get lost on my way back from the falafel shop. The lack of obvious addresses troubles me perhaps more than most because I have a particularly muddled sense of direction.

I have learnt a few specific landmarks. The bus station, for example. And from there Al Wahda Mall, the gold souq, Al Falah Plaza. A spidery map has formed in my mind like a puzzle, but it's a work in progress. Last week, it took three increasingly crazed drives back and forth along Khalidiya Street before I found the restaurant I was looking for. My taxi driver, who had seemed a genial sort when I hopped into his car, drove off in a thick cloud of dust and ill humour.

Norplan, a Norwegian company, is currently charged with a two-year, Dh10 million contract to design and implement a new address system for the city. It's not a task I'm envious of, but then, luckily for myself and the city's residents, it's not one I'm likely to be given. The current system, based on zones and sectors, was devised in the 1990s. It's technically logical but fiendishly difficult for the likes of me.

I'm sure I can't be alone. How do businesses manage? How do delivery companies get from kitchen to customer and serve up food that hasn't congealed and sprouted mould in the process? How can emergency services whirl around the city saving lives when they're trying to spot which turning to take after a specific landmark? How are any of us ever blessed with post? In an effort to learn how other people manage it, I accompanied staff from the Indian restaurant Tandoori Corner on an evening of deliveries. According to various websites, the restaurant offers the best curry in Abu Dhabi and is located "on the corner of Airport Road and 13th Street". I narrowed my eyes and squinted at my mini-map, drawing a mark on the spot with pencil before setting off.

By 6.00 on a Thursday night, the place was already filling up. Waiters scurried about with plates of nan and chutney. Red lights flashed on the phone, suggesting that Abu Dhabi residents were arriving home from work hungry and reaching for their Tandoori Corner takeaway leaflets. The restaurant opened in 2006. The manager, Deven Arwat, says that he has been there since then. Before the owner officially opened the restaurant, he took Arwat and several colleagues around the city to point out useful landmarks for deliveries.

"It was built so beautifully," Arwat says. "It is easy to get around the city in straight lines." Tandoori Corner has four drivers and two vans. It also has three bicycles that can navigate the traffic quickly with smaller orders. They deliver across the city, with a minimum order of Dh40 for food orders that cannot be delivered on foot from the restaurant. "How many orders will you have tonight?" I ask Arwat between his phone orders.

"Maybe 150," he says, passing another order through to the kitchen. "Many of them are regulars. We just know them from their voice when they ring, we don't know them by their face." The regulars' homes are easy to find, but for new customers, Arwat says, "we just take instructions from them on where to go, the name of their building maybe or the area where they live". He seems unconcerned about the idea of finding a new location in the city when there is hot food in the van.

There is an order than needs to go to Khalidiya. Basheer Alumgal, the driver, is handed a large bag full of Goan fish curry, nan, rice and a few spring rolls. Attached is a receipt with "Khalidiya" written on it. It's a regular customer, so Alumgal knows where to go. He runs to the van and I jump in with him. We sit on Airport Road for 15 minutes; Thursday evening traffic is no friend to takeaway orders.

"The traffic is too bad," Alumgal says. "It's been too bad for maybe two or three years now but I know lots of shortcuts." We turn off and try another route. Alumgal has worked in Abu Dhabi for 16 years, so he knows the city well. I ask if it is confusing, as new buildings are constantly being built. He laughs as if the question is absurd. "I have never been lost," he says, "I know all the street numbers."

"But if they're a new customer?" "They explain to the restaurant," he says simply. We are making up time and storming down towards Khalidiya but I wonder about the cooling food in the back. "It's all in aluminium," Alumgal assures me. "It's no problem. Lots of deliveries here." He points at the villas down Khaleej Al Arabi. Thirty-five minutes after leaving Tandoori Corner, we reach the designated apartment block: the Standard Chartered building on Khalidiya Street. Alumgal finds a free spot just outside, parks and runs with the food to the door.

Traffic aside, he might be the fastest delivery man in Abu Dhabi. He jogs from van to door, balancing the fish curry, then hands it over, takes the money and runs to the van again. Then he drives back to the restaurant, slowing only to avoid being caught by the camera between Seventh and Ninth streets. "I know where they all are," he says, "I have never been caught. His mobile rings; it's the restaurant saying there are more orders waiting to go out. We skirt the traffic on Airport Road and I wait in the van while he runs inside to gather the bags. He returns laden with more curry and nan.

"This is a new customer," Alumgal says, handing me the receipt with the scribbled instructions "Al Dhafrah, 273/1". It's not something immediately decipherable to me but then I still need my mini-map to get home in the evening, so what do I know? It takes Alumgal 10 minutes to find the villa. He doesn't even take one wrong turn. Then he heads back to the restaurant and loads up the van with 10 bags of food. There is not much time to dawdle with this job. Since we've been out, the restaurant has received scores of orders and Arwat is leafing through them to decide who takes what out according to area. Alumgal and I are given a delivery for the Tourist Club Area before we are despatched on to the British Embassy and then Khalidiya.

Traffic grinds to a standstill in the Tourist Club Area. Alumgal remains worry-free. "The maximum time for any delivery is about 40 minutes," he says. "Even to Khalifa City." We dart through traffic with a large food order (including 40 disposable plates, knives and forks) for the embassy, but run into trouble with the delivery because parking is not allowed alongside the building. Undeterred, Alumgal gathers the bags and hands them through the gate while I sit uselessly in the van around the corner.

While motoring towards Khalidiya again, we pass my apartment building. Despite having moved in two weeks ago, I still don't know my official address. I asked my flatmate for our address last week and the reply was "no idea". Our beds, washing machine, cooker and fridge were delivered thanks to wobbly hand-drawn maps with a giant X marking our building. Whenever I catch a cab home, I simply have to say "Prestige Cars" as if I'm camping out in the garage, but the drivers all know exactly where I mean.

Even though my building is relatively new, Alumgal cannot be foiled. "Yes the one behind Corniche Towers," he tells me as we head back to the restaurant, the van ready to be filled up again. It's 9.30pm and, feeling fairly peckish myself, I decide it's time to leave Alumgal to it (he will deliver until the restaurant closes at 12.30am). The traffic has calmed slightly, so darting across the city, navigating by one landmark to the next, has become easier.

"Prestige Cars," I say to the taxi driver on the way home. I reflect happily that, while I may be easily confused, the city's crack force of delivery men and taxi drivers are less so. They rely on memory, landmarks and sight, not on maps. And it's not stopping anyone from getting their curry on time. In fact, should you be looking for a chicken tikka masala tonight, I know just the place. smoneycoutts@thenational.ae